There is no question that today’s crane accident—the second in about as many months, leading to the 14th and 15th construction fatalities so far this year—is a horrible tragedy. And yet from his remarks today at the site of the collapse, Mayor Michael Bloomberg seemed to be suggesting that what happened was merely the cost of doing business.
“Keep in mind construction will always be a dangerous business,” Bloomberg said at a press briefing only a few hundred feet from the tangled mess of debris that lay broken in the intersection of First Avenue and East 91st Street. “Now two crane collapses may look like a pattern, but there is no reason to believe so. We have to have a balance [between safety and expediency] to be able to build in this city.”
Two days earlier, the Department of Buildings released [.PDF] “Revised Protocols for Erecting and Dismantling (Including Jumping) Tower Cranes.” It was a revision of new regulations put in place on March 25, following the first crane accident ten days earlier. The thing is, it did not help much. As Robert LiMandri, the acting commissioner of the increasingly beleaguered DOB, said earlier this morning, all protocols had been followed.
“There was a pre-installation meeting of all the parties concerned, that was on 4/17,” LiMandri told the press. “Three days later, erection began, and department engineers and inspectors were on hand as the crane went up on 4/20 and 4/21. The crane was jumped twice, on 4/22 and 4/27, and it was inspected both times by our engineers.” A flurry of questions followed, the refrain remained, “We’ll have to look into that.”
Everyone—an army of officials and politicians, hordes of local, national, and international reporters, and onlookers both from within the damaged building, 354 East 91st Street, and without—were left scratching their heads. If everything was up to code, then what went wrong?
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was short on explanations but long on solutions. “I think the Buildings commissioner has done a good job, but he needs more help,” Stringer told AN, just as a woman passed by wearing a dust mask. “We need to have an agency-wide strike force to address these persistent issues.”
Many who lived in the building wore masks in an apparent state of constant fear, or at least uneasiness. One woman, who gave her name simply as Carrie and was leaving the scene with her boyfriend, said that when they felt the building, 354 East 91st Street, shudder from their bedroom on the 18th floor, they immediately knew the cause. “We stare every day out our window at that thing,” she said, referring to the crane. “We used to wave to the guy in the cab. We all knew it was only a matter of time before it came down.”
Another woman, who lives on the seventh floor and was wearing a Princeton ’94 baseball cap, took a slightly more sardonic view of the situation. “I look at it like in The World According to Garp,” she said. “You know, where the plane flies into the building, and he says, ‘We have to live there. It’ll never happen again.’” She added that her biggest concern was making sure her pets and those of her neighbors were okay.
While the deaths of the two construction workers is terrible news, it is also fortunate the accident was not more devastating, like March's, which destroyed an entire five-story walk-up and killed seven. At one point, LiMandri was quick to point out that the crane spared busy First Avenue and countless lives as a result. Then again, and for the second time, it also spared the building that led to the accident.
Tony Avella, the Queens City Council member and frequent critic of the Department of Buildings and the Bloomberg administration, said in a phone interview that nothing had changed since the last accident, and he remains skeptical that it ever will.
“We have to send a message to the construction companies and the developer that we’re not going to stand for this anymore,” said Avella, a candidate for mayor for whom development reform is at the heart of his candidacy. “I don’t know what else to do at this point. I really think we just have to shut everything down. Shut them down until they can prove that this will never happen again.”
Such a proposal could be considered anathema to the development-first Bloomberg administration, but that is pretty much what happened, when LiMandri requested that all tower cranes forgo work over the weekend, with all Kodiak models—the same as the one that fell today—ceasing indefinitely. He also called an emergency meeting of industry leaders for tomorrow morning.
Before he arrived on the scene, Mayor Bloomberg was hosting his weekly radio show. While discussing the accident, he declared, "Nobody wants this economy to grow more than me, but we’re not going to kill people." Maybe there is hope for change after all.